The Secret You Forgot about Success
[Author’s note: This post is a chapter of my forthcoming book
RESET: Building Purpose in the Age of Digital Distraction]
Chapter Eleven: Rally
Am I supposed to be doing all this myself?
But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.
Book of Matthew, Chapter 23, Verse 11, King James Bible
My whole body was on fire when I woke up on September 2nd, 2000. I had moved into a new apartment the day before, trying to reset my life. Out with the bad, in with the good.
Part of the process was physical fitness. I needed to get in shape and lose weight so I could enlist in the Marines. And so, on the first night at my new place, I had gone for my very first jog. Ever.
That was a huge mistake, or at least it felt one. My entire body ached, all 6’ 4” and 300 pounds of it. My ankles hurt. My calves hurt. My knees hurt. My hips hurt. Even my toenails hurt, which I didn’t even know was possible until that moment.
My mission of losing weight to become a Marine was put to the test. No one told me it was going to feel like this, especially not on the second day!
I had to figure out if I would I go for another jog that evening, or admit defeat. I don’t mean to blow this out of proportion. That was how it felt. If I couldn’t jog two nights in a row, how could I hope to make it through boot camp?
Fortunately I was an eighteen year-old male. Or, to put it less charitably, I was stubborn and full of pride. And testosterone.
So I called on that amazing supply of youthful energy. I stumbled out for a jog that evening. And then again the next evening. And the next, and the next, and the next. I jogged every evening for months on end until the habit of physical exercise was seared into my soul.
And I did it all alone.
Trying to go through this whole process by myself was misguided, and ultimately unnecessary. I should have involved my family and friends. I should have enjoyed myself more. But I didn’t know what else to do except throw blood, sweat, and tears at my mission.
The only thing I knew how to do was grind.
This type of silent struggle is common. Common and stupid. The “lone hero” approach is a flawed strategy. For every publicized example of people changing their lives through sheer willpower, there are dozens of failures. Yet the image of one person doing it alone is a core theme of American culture.
So many of us live a long life and yet end up dying with our greatness trapped inside. Why? Because our behavior is based on three profound truths:
First, most major outcomes in life are determined by our daily habits.
Second, we usually isolate ourselves when attempting to change those habits.
And third, we end up quitting.
We quit for lots of reasons, and many of them are pretty good. It’s harder than we thought, so we quit. We get distracted, so we quit. Someone was mean or unfair, so we quit.
Obstacles are real. We will have to face them anytime we try to accomplish something meaningful. But they are also surmountable. To be successful, we have to try a different approach, one that helps us keep going despite the unavoidable trials.
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
The key is to recognize that we cannot sustain anything alone. It both easier and more enjoyable to maintain our enthusiasm through the love and support of the people around us. Rally your crew and you are much more likely to realize your dreams!
This is where a compelling mission re-enters the picture. Remember the insight from Chapter 7? An inspiring mission with a powerful Why? and Who? will attract support from your friends.
That support might be obvious or it might be unexpected. It might be immediate or it might be delayed. But it will emerge. Friends will pop up out of nowhere when you’re trying to do anything worthwhile. You will be blown away by the amount of valuable support others offer when they see you trying something new.
There are three groups of people that we need to pursue a meaningful life over the long term:
We need each group if we want to reach our destination, and if we want to enjoy the journey. The relationships will build and deepen will propel us forward in the good times, and drag us forward in the bad times.
These groups represent your own personal tribe, the people who are there for you when it matters.
A teacher is a tool — you share a practical and pragmatic connection with this person. Your relationship with each teacher should revolve around learning something specific and useful. You might have teachers for five years or five minutes. It depends on whether you both find the relationship to be useful.
This is a symbiotic relationship. The value to the teacher is the deepening of his or her knowledge. Both people should be improving. The student is getting way better at the basics and application of a particular skill. The teacher is getting better too, by clarifying the true utility and purpose of the skill.
Of course, I’m not talking about the teacher who stands at the front of a classroom. I’m also not talking about a grey-haired mentor who descends from their lofty perch to offer divine wisdom. No Yodas, and no condescending lectures.
You need a teacher who is in the trenches with you. They may only be a few steps ahead of you, not necessarily an established expert. Many of them are more like accomplished peers.
Teachers want to help because they just went through the same thing and have the scars to prove it.
It’s essential that teachers are honest. This is no time for coddling egos. As we’ve discussed in earlier chapters, blunt feedback speeds up your rate of learning, maximizing the value of your time together. It might seem counter-intuitive, but you cannot let your teacher off easy.
You want to be demanding of the teacher just like you expect a good teacher to be demanding of you.
Top universities are already moving to this style of collaborative learning. My friend Bill, a Mechanical Engineering lecturer at Stanford, teaches the world’s best class on designing innovative products. He is always looking for new ways to engage meaningfully with students because they already have access to the class material. Most of them show up to the first day of class having watched all the lectures!
Bill’s role as a teacher is changing. He is no longer the gatekeeper for the information. There is only one approach he can take that’s actually useful to the students. He needs to help them apply the curriculum to their specific area of interest. He is a guide, not a god.
Each person walks into class with a list of questions, engages the teacher and other students in the classroom, and then walks out a few hours later with a list of stuff to do. It’s called the flipped classroom.
This is being a teacher in a true sense. Bill is guiding them toward action and the deep, significant learning that comes with it.
This is someone with whom you can share lessons from your own journey. In this case, the teacher is you. You are the person who is a few steps ahead, helping someone else walk the path.
The focus must be practical wisdom. Students don’t need a pep talk. No dramatic music in the background. No blue facepaint a la Mel Gibson in Braveheart.
What they need is momentum to get them past that critical early period when they are starting to do something new. You should be pointing out specific tasks that they need to accomplish or angles they need to consider.
“Make sure you take a jacket and a bottle of water.”
“Okay, now wait for them to respond to your email before writing back.”
“Did you remember to save a copy for your records?”
Remember, you are not the person with all the answers. You are the person trying to push the student to learn through action. You are useful to the student because they’re facing a situation that is similar to something in your past.
Being a teacher is incredibly fulfilling, but it is also useful. As you teach, you remind yourself of key principles and models. It’s a reminder of all the wisdom you’ve gained over the years, even if you don’t always apply it. You are improving your own knowledge and skills while helping out someone else.
Developing these types of relationships is a powerful reminder of how much you know that is useful to others, and how easy it is to have a positive impact on someone else.
My uncle Craig helped a woman do her homework and it literally changed her life. He was a student majoring in mathematics at Southern Oregon University. One day as Craig was leaving the library, he walked by a young woman whom he recognized from one of his classes. She was sitting on a bench doing her homework, and clearly stressed out.
Craig stopped to say hi briefly, then stayed to help her work through one or two problems. He was on his way within five minutes.
That was it. Craig never gave it another thought until 20 years later when that woman approached him at a college reunion. She told him that on that day she was so frustrated that she had decided to drop out of college. But when he walked her through the solutions to a few tough problems, she was encouraged to stay and finish school.
That short break to help do her homework ended up saving her college career and setting her up for professional success!
And it wasn’t just about the woman. That story ended up having a huge impact on my uncle more than twenty years after the fact. Since the reunion, he regularly thinks back to that day in the library.
It’s a concrete reminder to him about the power of small gestures. How they can motivate us to keep going, no matter what.
That’s what happens when you teach others, even in a way that doesn’t seem important to you at the time. You’re dropping a stone in a pond. There are positive ripples that expand from that action. Whether any of them get back to you is not the point. You can be confident the ripples reached someone.
This last group of folks is here to remind you that you’re not alone. They send you a nice email when you reach an important milestone. They grab a cup of coffee and listen to you talk about a frustrating situation. They offer some important feedback about a situation where you’re not operating at your best. Sometimes it’s a little nudge, but it makes all the difference.
My grandfather, a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, wrote me four letters during boot camp. He knew exactly what I needed to hear during those thirteen weeks. And you better believe I read and reread those letters until the words were burned into my mind.
Cheerleaders are like training wheels or crutches. They keep you from falling over. They bridge that crucial gap between the time when you start something new and the time you start seeing the benefits. Cheerleaders function best with little opportunities to give you a “Hey, good job” text or email. That’s what friends are for.
Everyone needs this sort of positive reinforcement. We are social animals, as we saw through the distorted lens of social media in Chapter 3. There’s a huge emotional benefit when you can sense that you are having an impact on others. That’s why we care so much when other people share their intimate experiences with us.
Peer To Peer
These three groups can help you accomplish incredible feats while enjoying the process. To construct a fulfilling life, we need to learn to effectively use teachers, students, and cheerleaders.
I wish I had understood the value of these group back in 2000 when I was getting in shape for the Marines, or in 2005 when I was restarted community college.
Every time I did something hard, my default approach was to do it on my own. I kept my family and friends at bay instead of inviting them to support me. I muscled through that difficult initial phase. “Embrace the suck” is an informal motto of the Marine Corps. And that’s just what I did — embraced the suck — over and over.
It wasn’t until 2008 that I first reached out to others for advice, and began offering it in return. After a deployment to Iraq, I returned to campus and started counseling other veterans who were attending nearby community colleges. This helped them transfer to better four year universities while keeping my own skills sharp.
Getting veterans to apply to better top-tier universities became a mission for me. I knew they could compete with elite prep school students, but I had to figure out how to get them to believe it, too. So I worked with Dr. Jess Matthews — then the Associate Dean of Stanford Summer Session — to create a program to help enlisted veterans come to Stanford for the summer, free of charge!
Now called 2 to 4: A Veteran’s Accelerator, the program has transformed the lives of dozens of students veterans, with hundreds more coming through in the future.
The veterans who attend 2 to 4 have a life-changing experience, but that’s only part of the mission. All the alumni return to their community colleges to spread the gospel to their fellow veterans. They go from being students to teachers in a few months. And their support of other veterans will reinforce the lessons that they need to apply in their own lives.
That’s the essence of rallying people.
The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Imagine how different life can be if we consciously tapping into these groups of people. You will be able find and engage fascinating experts in whichever area interests you. You will be able to develop a wider range of skills more quickly, and enjoy your work. You will be able to feel the satisfaction of helping others. And you will know without a doubt that your life has had an impact on this world.
This is true for any kind of work that focuses on other people, no matter the job. You could be a graphic designer, a firefighter, a pet store owner, a fashion blogger, whatever. It doesn’t matter. You will be better at what you do, and you will enjoy your life more if you find simple ways to help others.
Rallying a crucial part of your reset. Your decision to take control of your life can become the inspiration for others.
Dozens of people you know are trying to also motivate themselves to take that first step toward changing their lives. You can help push them over the edge into powerful action. It could be your encouragement or advice propelling them toward a life of true freedom. To say No! to distractions of the world. To create something beautiful and valuable.
Imagine giving someone else that kind of gift. It’s in your power. And you have no idea how good it will feel until you see the look of appreciation in someone’s face.
Of course, we need to start somewhere. And here again are powerful lessons from the strangely parallel worlds of the military and Silicon Valley.
Whether your goal is defending a nation or building a business, your rate of learning needs to be incredibly high. Both environments are full of risks and threats as well as opportunities. Your job is to sort through all the stuff flying at you and take decisive action as quickly as possible. There is no time for endless conversations about the fine print. So you need to create an environment where people are constantly sharing practical information. Fortunately, that is precisely what you will do.
The military has a rich tradition of “hip pocket” classes. These are short informal periods of instruction that teach a specific skill or addresses a specific deficiency to a small group of people. The concept is deceptively simple: someone knows how to do something that a lot of other people don’t know how to do, so that person teaches everybody else how to do it.
The teacher — the person who knows the skill — gets everyone in a circle. He or she quickly describes the situation where the training is useful, before diving into the skill itself. Then a few random people are asked to demonstrate or summarize the class for everyone else. This usually takes between five and fifteen minutes depending on the topic and number of questions. Fast but effective.
The entrepreneurial equivalent to a hip pocket class is called an unconference. I first saw this when I was working at Singularity University in 2011. An unconference is a peer-based learning session that lasts about a half-day. The attendees propose classes they are willing to teach.
Say there are seven classrooms and four different time slots. That’s fifteen classes. You create a 7 X 4 matrix on a wall so the participants can sign up under each available class time. People then pitch their workshop idea to everyone else. Everyone votes on their favorites — usually each person get three votes — and the most popular workshops get taught.
Through unconferences, I’ve attended world-class workshops on foreign languages by a Turkish woman who spoke 13 languages, one on investing in private markets by an incredibly successful British banker, and another strategic decision-making by a Fortune 500 executive. Fascinating stuff, all of it for free, and none of it had to be pre-planned. Like hip pocket classes, an unconference is powered by our natural desire to share knowledge with others in practical ways.
Why do these practices work so well? They take advantage of our social nature. We learn much better from our peers than anyone else because there is a free flow of information and a natural similarity of perspective. A sixty year-old teacher can’t connect well to a 20 year-old student, especially when the communication is as one-sided as your traditional classroom environment.
To protect ourselves from the digital world’s constant distractions, we need constant, practical connections to our friends and family. These collaborative engagements will protect and inspire us as we charge through each day. And that takes us directly into our next topic.
Generating the daily momentum that will helps us accomplish our missions in life.
What to remember about “Rally”
- Involving other people maximizes your chance of success in any activity
- Find teachers, people who can help you learn a specific skill
- Find students, people who need to learn something you can teach them
- Find cheerleaders, people who want to encourage you in a specific activity
- Learn from those around you, like in the examples of the military’s hip pocket class or Silicon Valley’s unconference
Actions that require under 5 minutes
- Write yourself an email with the subject “My Support” that lists one possible teacher, one possible student, and one possible cheerleader. Add a brief note after each name explaining what you will do for them, and/or what you would like them to do for you.
Actions that require under 30 minutes
- Identify something specific you need to learn for work or school, then find a friend who knows how to do it. Email that person and ask them to spend a few minutes on the phone or in person to discuss the topic. At the end of the conversation, ask them if there is any way you can reciprocate.
Actions that require a few hours or more
- Pick a topic that interests you, anything from motorcycle racing to French cooking. Set a date over a weekend at least two months in the future. Contact a small group friends and coworkers who are interested in the same topic, asking them to join you for a few hours. Propose specific sessions that would be useful, and find someone who knows enough to teach it.